By Francesca Cassola, Sophomore Franklin & Marshall College & KidBacker Intern
Before the age of 23 William Zhou had already started and sold his own business, been named Forbes 30 Under 30, and created an incredibly successful education software company called Chalk.com. William has been passionate about entrepreneurship from a young age, starting his first business in high school and selling it during his freshman year of college.
During his first year at University of Waterloo, William spoke with his teachers from high school about their professional experiences. He found that teaching was not very easy and began thinking of a way to change education for the better. William came up with Chalk.com, a mobile platform that allows teachers to manage their daily workload (lesson plans, assessments, attendance etc.) more efficiently. Due to William and his team’s hard work, Chalk.com is now used in over 20,000 schools, helping teachers and students to enhance the academic experience. Chalk.com has been mentioned in Forbes, Reuters, Bloomberg and INC. William has some great advice for young entrepreneurs.
KidBacker: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
William Zhou: Solving problems to make and shape the world into a better place.
KB: What initiated the idea to start your business? What pain point do you solve?
WZ: I’ve always thought that teaching is an easy job. I thought teachers taught from a textbook and got 3 months off in a year. It was not until I visited my own high school teachers that I realized it’s not the case. Like many other educators, my own high school teachers were struggling with the overwhelming amount of work. They were dealing with lesson planning, assessment, and attendance, in addition to fending off angry parents and the bureaucratic administration. Now, I told them I can’t help them with the latter two, but I was willing to give it a shot with their daily tasks. That’s when I started Chalk.com.
KB: How did you fund your business?
WZ: We were self-funded until recently. At times, this became really difficult. Coupled with our low sales figures in our first year, things became quite dire. I’m a hobbyist photographer. I remember having to sell my all of camera gear on eBay in order to generate some extra needed cash.
KB: Are you a single founder or do you have (a) founding partner/s? How did you meet?
WZ: I have two co-founders, Ryan McKay-Fleming and Suraj Srinivas. I first met Ryan in computer science class at school. In early 2011, I had visions of what became Chalk.comand I told Ryan about it. We got together in my dorm room to brainstorm the first version and we actually started building it that summer out of Ryan’s dining room. In the fall I went to work as an intern at SugarCRM in Silicon Valley. It was there that I first met Suraj. Suraj was on his last college internship and about to graduate. Suraj is a people person and I knew he’d be great in sales. I showed him mockups of the product and convinced him to join Ryan and me on Chalk.com. Little did I know at the time, but Suraj actually turned down a full-time offer from SugarCRM to work with us at a startup barely a few months old.
KB: What were the biggest challenges you faced when launching your business? How did you overcome them?
WZ: Education is a tough market to build a business in. Many entrepreneurs shy away due to the bureaucracy and politics involved. Back in 2012, we sold our software directly to teachers. We thought it was a brilliant idea; instead, it led us nowhere. Although teachers loved using our product, purchasing out of pocket was not something they were willing to do. We ended the year with a few thousand dollars and less than 100 teachers who paid for the product. Things were looking bleak. However, in October 2012, we received a phone call from a Texas school district. They were looking to purchase 72 licenses. We had no idea how to conduct district sales; we had no proposal or invoice documents to use. Nonetheless, we rushed and created everything just in time to make the sale – all within 24 hours. That one deal doubled our earnings. We were all in shock. When asked why they had purchased, they told us that their teachers were using it on their own accord. A light bulb went off in our head and we decided to switch our business model to give away the productivity suite for free and charge schools and districts for premium features. Teachers became our biggest champions and helped to raise awareness within districts. A year later, we had reached 100,000 teachers and our sales would rise 3000%.
KB: Do you have any mentors? If so, who? How do they help you? On what frequency?
WZ: Absolutely. Entrepreneurs are told to avoid making the same mistake. However, the reality is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Our team came from an engineering background, we had to surround ourselves with people in the industry- from classroom teachers, to superintendents, to district administrators. Having these mentors and advisors has been immensely helpful to understanding the industry. In addition, I’m a big believer in peer network as well and believe they are one of your greatest assets. I even wrote a blog post on this recently: http://mr.chalk.com/value-of-peers/.
KB: If you had 5 tips to give other young people who want to start their own business, what would they be?
WZ: I’ll skip the “just do it” and “don’t be afraid” comments. Startups are hard. Resilience matters. You will go through highs feeling like you’re top of the world and lows feeling like you’re alone by yourself. It is an emotional rollercoaster that can last years. It’s only worth it if you find something you truly care about – something you’re passionate about. Otherwise, you may just end up crashing in this emotional rollercoaster. With that, I wish you the best of luck in your venture!
KB: Why should young people consider becoming entrepreneurs?
WZ: There are tons of problems and improvements that can be made in the world. I would start there instead of trying to become an entrepreneur. Every great entrepreneur I know didn’t start out wanting to be one, they saw a problem and figured out a way to fix it. The last thing is being a entrepreneur. Pick and find a problem that you’re passionate about and solve it.
KB: What is unique about your company?
WZ: We have a true passion about education. Even though we did not come from the education industry previously, we are always learning about the industry and looking for ways to improve. The current education system is built for the industrial era. You may have heard of the factory model where each student is divided into his or her age group and information is disseminated downwards at the exact same pace. It has worked for that time, but now, how do we adapt education to today’s knowledge-based economy. We have a simple solution, and that’s to personalize education to each learner. This will make people want and know how to learn. Problem is that this has not been possible at the K-12 level within the current system. You simply can’t have 30 teachers per 30 students. But that’s all changing with technology. At Chalk.com, we really believe in the role of the teacher and we are building the technology within our productivity suite to give personalized education.
- You must be willing to sacrifice things at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey in order to reach success.
- Successful entrepreneurs are brave and take risks.
- It is important to be open-minded to your business going in a different direction than you originally planned it to.
Location: Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Business: e-Learning, mobile
Mission: Supporting professionals in bringing personalized education to every student
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